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My colleague broke his feelings. (English Syntax and Argumentation, Bas Aarts)

Aarts says this sentence is abnormal, because of the selectional restrictions: ‘feelings’ is abstract and not proper for the object of ‘broke.’ I can understand what he is saying. But is the case so strange enough to be selected by Aarts? We can say ‘The death of his wife broke him completely.’ Then why can’t we say like the example?

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    "The death of his wife broke his spirit" is normal English, but "The death of his wife broke his feelings" is nonsense, in my not-so-humble opinion. – user264 Mar 11 '13 at 14:27
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    It does seem odd that you can have broken hearts, broken relationships, broken spirits, broken dreams, broken homes, broken promises, and broken treaties, but you can't have broken feelings, even though you can have bruised feelings, hurt feelings, or even injured feelings. I find it especially peculiar that feelings are tangible enough to be "bruised," but too abstract to be "broken," whereas dreams can be broken or even crushed. I suppose it's all in how the idioms evolve. – J.R. Mar 11 '13 at 15:00
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    It would shatter my feelings if this question didn't get a lot of upvotes. – J.R. Mar 11 '13 at 15:17
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    @KenB: No, I find "broken dreams" and "broken promises" to be idiomatic English phrases, not absurdities. The notion that "broken feelings" is wrong because feelings are abstract instead of concrete is absurd, however. That's an ad hoc explanation, a rationalization that attempts to explain based on the commentor's ignorance. The only reason it's wrong is that it's not idiomatic and not heard because it's not used. Historical accident or not is irrelevant, IMHO. – user264 Mar 11 '13 at 15:23
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    @ryan: As Bill said, this is because one expression is idiomatic, and the other isn't, as opposed to one being more "tangible". When something tangible is broken, we can pick up the pieces or see the crack, otherwise feelings could be broken as easily as spirits or hearts. Non-tangible things can be broken, and tangible things can be broken in intangible ways: break a sweat, break a news story, break a record, break a horse, break the bank, break the ice, as well as broken strides, broken ranks, broken plays, broken verse, broken habits, broken spells – I think I'll break it off here. – J.R. Mar 11 '13 at 19:43
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I believe "break" is used metaphorically in "broken heart" and "broken man", and these metaphors have long since become fixed in language. We're used to hearing them so much we don't even think of them as metaphors.

So why not "broken feelings"? I believe it's simply a historical accident. It's plausible to me that the collocation "broken feelings" could have become just as common as "a broken heart", even though it never did. In other words, I don't believe there is any real analysis to make of it.

I could be wrong, of course. But it's hard to say--we can't re-run history and see what different words and collocations we end up with, so it's not the sort of thing we can experiment with and determine empirically. It's just a matter of what makes sense--and what makes sense to me is that it's a simple accident.

  • As Aarts said (perhaps implied), "man" and "heart" are both physical, concrete objects, whereas "feelings" is too abstract to be practical. On the other hand, "spirit" is more abstract, but I think we equate a man's "spirit" with the man himself, or perhaps with culturally founded images of spirits as angels, people-shaped beings, etc, which might make it just concrete enough to visualize, making it more useable. – Ken Bellows Mar 11 '13 at 15:02
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    @KenB How about broken dreams? Do you believe dreams are more concrete than feelings? – snailboat Mar 11 '13 at 15:03
  • Then again, as @J.R. points out above, you can break promises and dreams, each of which I would consider to be at about the same level of abstraction as feelings. So I really have to agree with you that it's a simple happenstance of history. – Ken Bellows Mar 11 '13 at 15:07
  • To "break someone's spirit" is idiomatic English. To "break someone's feelings" is not. It may be possible to say something like "You broke the feeling when you hesitated", but that means "You ruined the {ambiance / atmosphere} when you hesitated". – user264 Mar 11 '13 at 15:18
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    @ryan I would say "in my opinion" rather than "in fact" if I were you; you can make that argument, but it's all a bit fuzzy and just-so to my mind. I'm still not convinced there is any logic to it, let alone logic strong enough to hang the "fact" hat on. – snailboat Mar 11 '13 at 19:00
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I do not recall ever hearing a fluent English speaker say "broke his feelings".

It is a common idiom to say that someone "broke his/her heart". Typically this is said if a wife or girlfriend or husband or boyfriend terminates a relationship. It is also commonly said if someone close to a person disappoints him in some extreme way, like "When he learned that his son had become a thief and a killer, it broke his heart."

It is also common to say that someone "hurt his feelings". This is used for a disappointment or offense on a much smaller scale than "broke his heart". Like, "When she didn't show up for their first date, it hurt his feelings." "When he learned that his son had failed a history test, it hurt his feelings."

I don't know any logical reason why we say "broke his heart" but not "hurt his heart", and "hurt his feelings" but not "broke his feelings". But that's the nature of idioms. Some phrases just come to be commonly accepted, and others ... don't.

Regarding 25 million hits for "break * feelings": I checked out the first two pages and didn't see any that were "break his feelings" or "break her feelings". Rather, there were many other words in between, like "When she broke up with him, it hurt his feelings". Finding such a high number for that pair of words doesn't surprise me at all: People routinely talk their feelings when someone breaks up with them.

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    There are some very interesting excerpts among those millions of hits, like this one: To portray a woman caught in this swirl of emotions, Hunter had to break the feelings into manageable, actable chunks. But even this isn't really talking about broken feelings, it's more like dissected feelings in this context, and that use of the word broken could apply to feelings, ideas, freedoms and liberties, or any other abstract concept. – J.R. Mar 11 '13 at 15:12
  • My late Taiwanese wife was always saying "Oh, that hurt my heart". – user264 Mar 11 '13 at 15:19
  • @J.R. Sure. You could say of anything, "He broke X into manageable chunks." That's literal: You break some large collection up into smaller pieces. – Jay Mar 13 '13 at 15:53
  • Yes - that's why it's worth perusing the hits: to examine context. After awhile, one might say (for example): maybe we don't normally talk about "broken feelings," but I suppose we could talk about "broken feelings," if we were talking about breaking them down into individual pieces (like an actor might need to do, to be persuasive on camera or on stage). – J.R. Mar 13 '13 at 16:00
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From Google Books:

hurt my feelings 370,000 hits
broke my heart 122,000 hits
broke his spirit 65,300 hits
broke my feelings 1 hit

That single instance is actually the reported speech of a child, in a book with the equally "ungrammatical" title Nice on My Feelings (there are no relevant instances of broke his feelings).

So one justification for Aarts saying "this sentence is abnormal" is simply the fact that people don't say it. As regards the "selectional restrictions" justification, I would put it like this:

Your (real or metaphorical) heart is something that can be seen as whole and functional, so it can be "broken". Equally, with your spirit, it's a reference to your vivacity/determination - which can also be "broken", so it doesn't function properly any more. But feelings are always there (in fact you'd probably have more of them if someone broke your heart); they're not sufficiently organised or functional to be described as "broken", no matter what happens to them.

  • +1 for actually getting to the root of why some of these idioms became common and why others didn't. – Ryan Mar 11 '13 at 18:44
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    @ryan: There's not always an identifiable reason why certain idiomatic usages become established, while other equally credible ones don't. But I felt I should answer in this case because it didn't seem quite right for both the other answers to be effectively saying it's a meaningless historical accident of language evolution. You've only got to consider "He broke my concentration" to see that we like using the word metaphorically. But the thing that's broken must previously have been something whole, integrated, and functional. – FumbleFingers Mar 11 '13 at 19:03
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    +1 for getting to the root of the matter with broke my concentration. If concentration can be broken, surely happiness could be, too – but, for whatever reason, we just don't say it that way. – J.R. Mar 11 '13 at 19:54
  • @J.R.: Yeah, I agree we're getting closer to "inexplicable, random" idiomatic usages. But bearing in mind destroyed my happiness trumps all others I can think of, might it not be that "concentration" is a mental state with a purpose (that can be broken, so it doesn't "work" any more), whereas "happiness" is just something you have like having (it can't be broken, non-functional). Maybe. – FumbleFingers Mar 11 '13 at 21:58
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    I don't suppose that idioms are random. Whoever was the first person to say something normally had some coherent thought in mind. (I'm sure some idioms that sound non-sensical would, upon in-depth investigation, prove to be non-sensical.) The thing about idioms is that, very often, we routinely use a certain combination of words but a very similar and arguably quite parallel combination of words is never used. Like here: "Broke his heart" and "Hurt his feelings" are common, people say them all the time. I can't think of any logical reason why we should not say "hurt his heart". But we don't. – Jay Mar 13 '13 at 15:58
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Although "broke his feelings" is just as logical than "hurt his feelings" or "broke his heart" it is simply non-idiomatic.

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Also, an interesting aspect in "My colleague broke his feelings" is that HE did it to HIMSELF. If the correct form is eg "break one's heart", I still can't break it to myself, but something must break it to me. Similarly, I suppose, we can't say "I broke my spirit" but have to say that "something broke my spirit" etc. Am I right?

  • Basically, yes. Though you certainly might say, "When I failed to accomplish X, it broke my spirit." In a real-world sense, you broke your spirit yourself. But still, the phrasing is that it was the event that did it. I've never heard someone say "I broke my heart" or "I broke my spirit". It doesn't sound odd to say "I broke my own spirit", but I can't think of a case where I heard someone say that, either. – Jay Mar 13 '13 at 16:01
  • Yes I noticed this. It certainly sounds reflexive from the syntax but doesn't really make sense as a reflexive verb. – starsplusplus Feb 7 '14 at 14:00

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